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Bee Smart! Bee Safe! Public Safety Tips

Posted On Apr 01, 2014

There has been much discussion in the media, over the past several years, about the scarcity of honeybees and a new phenomenon called “Colony Collapse Disorder” that has caused a sudden decrease in the North American European honeybee population. This has not been our experience in the desert southwest. The wild feral honeybee colonies in our region are almost completely African.

Our feral honeybee population appears to be vigorous and healthy and still very active. If you’ll remember, African honeybees were originally brought to the South America because of their traits of natural disease resistance and aggressive pollination. Scientists attempted to cross breed or hybridize these characteristics with existing European honeybee colonies to improve the disease resistance of European honeybees being kept in apiaries.

The experiment failed: African honeybees mated earlier and hatched a fewer days earlier and became dominant, usurping (taking over) weakened European colonies in the failed attempt at interbreeding. We feel the news media has performed a disservice to the public in our area because of the potential public threat that still exists from African honeybees (“Killer Bees”) here in the desert southwest.

We receive many calls from people asking what they can do if they are attacked, how to prevent attacks and what to look out for. This article will attempt to answer those questions.

1. If you are attacked:


All African honeybee attacks come from established colonies. An established colony is one which has built honeycomb in which food is stored and young are being reared, a colony becomes increasingly more defensive of their home site as it matures and grows larger, with more valuable assets to defend.

• Established colonies have dedicated “guard bees” whose sole purpose is to defend the colony entrance from any perceived threat. They will patrol a perimeter around the colony and challenge anything that they feel may present a danger to their home site. Scents, vibrations (such as barking dogs, lawnmowers, etc.), the movement of people or animals, and dark colored clothing may be perceived by the bees as threats.

• Guard bees will initially challenge a potential threat by first “bumping.” Bumping is when a bee rams into you without stinging. This usually occurs around the face, head, neck and shoulder area. It is a warning and in all cases should be heeded – you are being told that you are not wanted in that area. The bees initially track into the carbon dioxide expulsions of your breath, and then will begin to sting tender areas around the eyes, ears and mouth, as well. If bumping occurs, identify the direction the bees are coming from and leave the area quickly.

• If you aggravate the guard bees by flailing and swatting at them and fail to move quickly out of the area, they will sting you. The sting acts as a marker to tell other bees where to sting. The “sting” or “alarm” pheromone (isopentyl acetate), has a scent similar to bananas, and is released when the stinger is planted.

• The colony will respond to this pheromone and bees will start flying out of the colony towards the pheromone scent. Once the bees zero in on the initial sting site, the victim will be stung repeatedly until dead. Bee attacks are massive.

What To Do:

If you are caught out in the open:

• Identify the direction from which the bees are coming and move as quickly as you can (safely) in the opposite direction.

• Do not stop, flail at the bees or hunker down trying to hide from the bees.

• Do not circle through brush or jump into a body of water, thinking the bees will be confused and drop off the attack.

• Do put as much distance as possible between you and the point of attack as quickly as possible, whether you are being bumped or stung. Guard bees will continue to follow and harass you for a considerable distance. However, as you get further away from the colony the number of bees launched in pursuit will diminish.

If you are attacked in an urban or residential area with available shelter:

• Do get into complete cover as soon as possible: a house, a vehicle, a commercial building – anything that can seal the bees out. Even if you bring bees inside with you, get inside! The bees following you will quickly realize where they are and go to a window or other bright light source.

• Do not stop, flail at the bees or hunker down trying to hide from the bees.

• Do not circle through brush thinking the bees will be confused and drop off the attack.

• Do not jump into a swimming pool, the bees will wait for you.

• Do not run up to somebody in the open and ask for help, they will also be included in the attack.

When you are safe:

• When you are safe and away from the attack, quickly check for and remove any visible stingers, even stingers embedded in clothing. If possible, scrape the stingers out rather than pinch, but get them out as quickly as possible to avoid injecting more venom. Use a blunt or rough object like the edge of a credit card or towel to scrape them out.

• Call 911 and advise them of the attack and they will review any emergency medical concerns with you and instruct you further.

2. What to look for and prevention measures:

Be Alert!

• If you see even a few bees flying in and out of a specific area during the day, or if you see a great number of bees hanging on the outside of a structure at night, after a hot day, or hear humming inside a wall, this likely indicates the presence of an established colony. Increasing bee activity in any area can indicate the same. Stay away from the area and call a bee removal specialist. Do not attempt to spray honeybees yourself. If you spray pesticides at the bees, you will likely be injured, and/or cause someone else to be injured seriously.

• Again, if attacked, do get into complete cover as soon as possible: a house, a vehicle, a commercial building – anything that can seal the bees out.

What To Do:

• Avoid areas of intense bee activity. Do not attempt to approach them to see what’s going on. Leave these areas alone and give them a wide berth.

• Warn people nearby that there may be a bee problem in that area and tell them to stay away.

When You Are Safe:

• If you see or hear these signs on your property, call a licensed bee removal company and discuss it with them.

• If the activity is not on your property, advise the property owner and ask them to do the same.

• If the area is remote and property ownership is not identifiable, notify the County Sheriff’s Department and report the location.

• You may save someone else’s life as well as your own.